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Robert Abrams
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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater - Memoria and Revelations 50

by Robert Abrams
December 12, 2010
New York City Center
130 West 56th Street
(Audience Entrance is on West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
(Entrance for Studios and Offices is on West 56th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
New York, NY 10019

Featured Dance Company:

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
405 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 405-9000

One way to test whether a work of dance is truly great is to ask whether you love it as much upon seeing it for the second time. Memoria passes this test.

I originally saw Memoria in 2007. This time around I didn't remember having seen it before, at least initially, but later on I had a nagging suspicion that I had, because the dance is of a type of dance I tend to like. (I am not sure which is worse for a dance critic: watching a show and having nothing to say about it, or watching a show, having something interesting to say, but suspecting that you have said the same thing before.)

Basically, in my view, Memoria is a dance about expressing geometrical shapes, and more specifically, a topology: a geometrical object that stays fundamentally the same no matter how it is stretched or twisted. Memoria is about as good an example of this type of dance as I have ever seen. Memoria is so superb that if another choreographer extracted the basic principles from Memoria and then created a new dance of the same type that was only 50% as good, this would still be a notable accomplishment.

In 2007 I was sitting in the balcony and suggested that the audience might not see the patterns if seated in the orchestra. It turns out I was wrong. The patterns are just as evident from the orchestra seats.

I did see something new this time. The first time I saw math. The second time I saw both math and physics: states of matter. The first section suggested water. The second section suggested plasma. The third section suggested light.

The initial image was of a woman in a spotlight, her hands clasped above her head, suggesting a steeple. The lighting was a gentle blue. The music rippled like water. The woman and her two male companions formed a triangle. Other dancers came on stage and flowed through them, forming a second figure. Sometimes the triangle reversed direction, but it was always present, even in its absence (such as when the triangle was not present, but the woman from the triangle was the centerpoint of a circle: the two figures merged to create a new figure, but traces of the initial figures remained). In other words, Memoria is consistent about its geometrical formalism, but doesn't overdo the underlying idea.

The two figures were accented from each other through the use of related but differently styled costumes. Both costumes were flowing, but the costumes for the dancers in the flow figure were more diaphanous.

I would characterize the movement as lyrical loveliness masking strength. Most, maybe all, but certainly the main dancer (who this afternoon was Linda Celeste Sims) was so stable in one footed holds you take such movement as the most natural thing at first glance (whereas in actuality it is a very difficult thing to accomplish).

In one moment I especially liked, two dancers achieved a beautiful and artful line: the man supports the woman with one arm while the other arm reaches out behind him, the woman leans back arm extended towards the ground. Their arms stretched out in opposite directions along one line.

The second section brought to mind the state of matter known as plasma. The dancing was fiery in a controlled way. The lighting was a red color. The stage was dense with dancers, most in form fitting unitards. There were still two figure groups, but these groups were somewhat different in form from the groups in the first section. The music was also a little more intense.

The main woman returned in a red dress and a mass of pearls. The original group of three reformed. Sustaining a geometrical formalism over this length is no small challenge, but Memoria pulls it off. The group of three and two other men danced some Latin-ish steps.

In the third section, a mass group was on stage in brightly colored costumes. To my eye, the dancers suggested released photons. The music was happy, with bouncy horns. Is this dance a wave, or a collection of particles? Either way, it was just stunning.

In the final image, the massed group holds the main woman aloft in the same clasped arms raised pose as at the start.

Well deserved applause followed. I would be quite happy to see Memoria a third time.

Memoria was choreographed by Alvin Ailey as a tribute to his friend the late choreographer Joyce Tristler.

The second work on the program this afternoon was Suite Otis, choreographed by George Faison. I chose to simply enjoy this dance, and indeed it was enjoyable.

The final work on the program was Revelations (which included a short film about Revelations), choreographed by Alvin Ailey. I had chosen to attend this particular performance because I was told this would be a special Revelations with 50 dancers on stage. There were a few sections that were "enhanced" - such as the opening number (I Been 'Buked), the Take Me to the Water Processional, and the Rocka My Soul finale - but otherwise this turned out to be the same Revelations as always. This was not a problem. Alvin Ailey doesn't need gimmicks to succeed: they always have great dancers performing great choreography. Revelations is great choreography that doesn't need enhancing. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with experimenting now and then. The opening section certainly felt more massive than it usually does. The addition of a corps of children in a few sections was a nice touch. The finale had the usual number of dancers on stage, but also had extra dancers in the aisles for part of the number (if I counted correctly, there were 59 dancers performing simultaneously for the finale). So we were given what we were promised, even if it wasn't quite the fireworks the advance PR suggested.

It did suggest, though, that it might be worth the Ailey company's while to be bold and try for the massive fireworks. Take the existing choreography, from each and every section, and see what happens if 50 dancers were performing it simultaneously. Oh heck, why stop at 50? How about 100 dancers? It might be a spectacular success, or a spectacular failure, but I think it would be worth trying. It would not, though, be Alvin Ailey's choreography, at least not in a strict sense, but I don't think Mr. Ailey would mind. He was not just a choreographer, after all. He, and his associates, built an organization to continue presenting new choreography after he was gone. If AAADT decides to take me up on my suggestion (which is really their idea, just bigger), I would suggest that they make a dance for the camera, maybe in Avatar-style 3D, while they are at it. A "Revelations 100" might turn out to be an awesome experience (and I mean awesome in the older sense of full of awe), but the economics of such a live production would be unwieldy. The economics would be much better suited to film. Preferably in something like the IMAX format. Now that just might prove to be an old-time dance revival.

Want more of Linda Celeste Sims? Sweet Dreams, My Dance Critics - a children's book about dance and writing - features two beautiful photos of Ms. Sims by Lois Greenfield.
AAADT's Amos J. Machanic Jr., Clifton Brown, and A. Thomas in Alvin Ailey's Memoria

AAADT's Amos J. Machanic Jr., Clifton Brown, and A. Thomas in Alvin Ailey's Memoria

Photo © & courtesy of Andrew Eccles

AAADT's Amos J. Machanic Jr., Clifton Brown, and A. Thomas in Alvin Ailey's Memoria

AAADT's Amos J. Machanic Jr., Clifton Brown, and A. Thomas in Alvin Ailey's Memoria

Photo © & courtesy of Andrew Eccles

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